Expert says ‘unsatisfactory’ learning for half of school pupils

Education expert Lindsay Paterson has said half of all pupils’ learning experience has been ‘unsatisfactory’ since schools moved to online learning.

On Good Morning Scotland today, the Edinburgh University professor said “research suggests that half of pupils are simply not getting a satisfactory experience even this year and for them the whole system is simply failing.”

He added that there is “no sign of a policy coordination” and there is still a “problem” of students not being able to access computers, “even though there has been a term for the Scottish Government to address it.”

The Scottish Conservatives have described the SNP’s handling of online learning as ‘woefully inadequate’ earlier this month and called for a doubling of support to remote education to £50 million, if school closures are extended.

Commenting, Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary Jamie Greene said: “John Swinney paints a rosy picture of everything being well with online learning but as so often with the SNP, the reality is a let-down for parents and pupils, despite the very best efforts of teachers.

“The SNP’s national planning for a return to remote learning was woefully inadequate and the stark effects are now being keenly felt.

“They need to listen to the devastating assessments from education experts and finally put in place the extra support that the Scottish Conservatives have been demanding.

“The SNP Government has its head buried in the sand over home education. They had months to get proper plans in place and failed miserably to do so.

“By failing to roll out proper home learning plans, the SNP shamefully runs the risk of the attainment gap widening even further.”


Here is a rough transcript of Professor Paterson’s comments:

Laura Maxwell: The middle of February is starting to look very close, do you think there is any likelihood that schools will reopen after half-term?

Prof Lindsay Paterson: That's really a health question, I am not qualified to comment on that, but I have to say it does look extremely unlikely that the schools will be able to reopen in the middle of February, yeah. 

Laura: In the meantime, what should councils be looking at? Do you think they should be planning for taking this entire term out?

Paterson: Well, the problem about getting students to repeat time is that you then have enormous knock-on consequences for the whole of the school system. Somebody has suggested for example that people would simply repeat the entire year because the year has been so disrupted, but if you do that then you have got a new group of students coming in, pupils coming in, younger pupils coming in and that just creates enormous logistical problems because the size of the schools couldn't cope with the number of extra pupils. 

Laura: Before we go into that too much though, do you think that the councils should be preparing for this entire term to be home learning as supposed to school learning?

Paterson: It does look indeed as though the whole term is going to have to be based on home learning. That is extending the period that's already been gone through, with all the very unsatisfactory aspects of that that parents are very familiar with.

Laura: How do you think that is impacting on the learning experience for most kids?

Paterson: Well, the evidence from research is that things are going better than last year. Many, many schools and teachers have put in an enormous amount of work and imagination in enabling classes to take place, interaction with pupils, but on the other hand that same research suggests that half of pupils are simply not getting a satisfactory experience even this year and for them the whole system is simply failing.

Laura: And so, then what impact does that have on assessments, specifically for older pupils?

Paterson: Well, there is a real emerging crisis here. All the exams have been cancelled this year, the exams run by the Scottish Qualifications Authority and teachers have been expected to predict the grades that students would get, but the problem is at the moment the SQA has given no serious advice to teachers about how to do that. Teachers are therefore in the dark about what criteria to use and what kinds of assessments to use, to form the basis of their predictions of students' results. 

Laura: Presumably if a lot of high school students are learning at home then a lot of work is either being done on their computer or teachers don't have access to the work that they are actually doing, so how do they start assessing the work that kids are doing at home?

Paterson: Well, indeed there is a big issue of course that a small minority of students don't even have access through computers at home, those whose families can't afford a computer, that is still a problem even though there has been a term for the Scottish Government to address it, but the bigger problem here is you can't run an exam remotely. You can't get people at home to do assessment under the same conditions that would normally apply to an exam and that is why the SQA has to be giving practical, useful advice, it has to be a compromise, it can't be as good as a normal year, but there needs to be some advice though that is a standard attainment level expected of students right across the country.

Laura: It does make it sound like any assessments given out this year will be to a degree some guesswork involved for the teachers having to do it.

Paterson: I think guesswork is too negative. Teachers, after all, know their students well, they have thought them for many years and also, they are extremely experienced at assessing their students in the normal business of the day-to-day work of the classroom. So, teachers will do it, it won't be a guess, it would be an informed estimate, but on the other hand the problem, the key problem, is making sure that the standards are the same in all schools and right across the country. That is where the SQA has to act very, very soon. 

Laura: And that then brings us background full circle to what you were mentioning right back at the very start. The First Minister says there are currently no plans for pupils to resit the entire year. Is there merit though in them considering that?

Paterson: You can see the attraction of it because there has been so much disruption, young people's lives have been so much turned upside down that you might think let's just restart, let's go back to the beginning, but there are practical problems. If you stop people leaving school at the end to repeat, you can't stop people from coming in at the beginning. Either at the beginning of secondary or the beginning of primary. So, it becomes a sheer practical problem, you can't accommodate all these people and secondary you can't do the timetabling without many, many extra teachers. It would be enormously expensive, and you would have to build some temporary classrooms. But also, think about it from this point of view: you are a young person, who's live has been turned upside down by this and then finally you are being told that you are not even going to be allowed to leave school to start the next stage of your life. That would be very, very demoralising and I think a majority of young people would resent it very, very deeply. 

Laura: On the other hand, if things continue as they are currently, it may be a relief to some people to know that they can stay within the education system and aren't forced to move on to either remote learning at university or onto the jobs market where there are fewer jobs, it might give them a better chance. 

Paterson: The problem here I think is that there would be a widening in inequality in this respect as well. People aged over 16 can't be forced legally to stay in school. So, some would leave, and some would stay, and I suspect those who would choose to leave would be those who are the lowest attaining and probably in the most disadvantaged circumstances. Those who stay might get the benefits, but those who left would just be cast out into the wilderness.

Laura: So, if the current assessment system you don't think is working just as it should be at the moment, but you think there are too many stumbling blocks to let people repeat the year, how do you square the circle? What should government be doing just now?

Paterson: Well, it is quite complicated. There has to be some form of catch-up and that means first of all, that the Government and everybody else has to admit that there has been enormous loss and therefore an urgent need for catch-up. The catching up what has been lost within school, those who are still at school can be done within the school. Those who move onto something else, there has to be far greater emphasis on catching up when people go to university and when people go to full-time courses in college or to apprenticeships and there is a recognition by places that students go to that they not have had the same preparation as normal and that therefore these places they go to have to spend more time covering the basics.

Laura: And are you seeing any signs as yet that that is actually going to happen from those institutions?

Paterson: I see absolutely no sign of a policy coordination to deal with that, there should be some kind of national plan here, some sort of attempt to assess first of all what has been lost. That means sort of assessing students for what they know and what they don't know and secondly, their appropriate work, which does require some investment of time and people in order to compensate for these losses.

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